One of Bolivia’s best known glaciers, Chacaltaya, has melted away completely, reports John Enders
Chacaltaya (the name in Aymara means ''cold road'') began melting in the mid-1980s. Dr. Edson Ramirez, the assistant director of the Institute of Hydraulics and Hydrology at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in nearby La Paz, documented its disappearance in March.
Ramirez believes the disappearance of Chacaltaya is an indication of the potent effects at higher elevations of the interaction of greenhouse gas accumulation and an increase in average global temperatures.
And he thinks other glaciers in the Andean region also may be melting at a rate faster than previously known. Illimani, the colossal 21,200-foot mountain that looms over the city of La Paz, is the home to several glaciers. They likely will melt completely within 30 years, he said.
The disappearance of glaciers is not only of interest to scientists but also for those dependent on them for their livelihoods, water security and power generation from hydroelectricity.
Chacaltaya became well-known long before it started melting. For decades it was declared, and aggressively marketed, as ``the highest ski run in the world.''
''Very few come to ski now,'' laments Alfredo Martinez, 73, who is one of the founders of the Club Andino de Bolivia, based in La Paz.
On the western, mostly arid side of the Andes, millions of people depend on rain, snow run-off and melting glaciers for their water.
Not only are the glaciers melting, but less rain seems to be falling in the Andes. The big rain-carrying monsoons drifting west from the Amazon basin have declined in size and intensity, another indication of major climactic changes, Ramirez said.
This year, for the first time, the amount of water flowing out of reservoirs serving nearly 2.5 million people in La Paz and its adjacent city, El Alto, will exceed the amount of water flowing into them. This eventually will become a major political issue for leaders in La Paz and El Alto, he said.
To Juan Velazquez, who grew up just over the mountain from Chacaltaya in the now-abandoned mining town Mulluni, and later moved with his family to La Paz, the defunct glacier means less income. As a taxi driver, he can earn the equivalent of 50 U.S. dollars driving tourists from La Paz to the glacier and back. That's the equivalent of a month's wages for some in this impoverished land.
The speed of glacial melt reconfirms the importance of adaptation for countries like Bolivia who are historically responsible for a tiny percentage of global carbon emissions, but are the first in line to suffer the consequences of climate change.